Powerful Philly union accused of using drones to intimidate enemies

Hotel developer Mihir Wankawala clicked on the link a friend had sent him and watched in shock: Drone-shot video shows dozens of union protesters, the view rising to peer in the windows of the historic hotel property Wankawala was carefully refurbishing. The whole video, which the unions posted to YouTube, is ominously set to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

“I guess they were trying to show their power,” says Wankawala, who says he sought bids from union and non-union contractors and discovered that using solely organized labor would increase his costs by around 30 percent. “I’m the new kid on the block. This is my first project [in Philadelphia]. I think they were trying to send a message that you have to use union labor to get your project done.”

Such scare tactics are nothing new; for decades, Philadelphia’s construction unions have used violence, vandalism, harassment and intimidation to dominate the construction industry.

The construction unions’ drone plan came to fruition under the leadership of Philadelphia’s most powerful union boss, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. He leads not only his home union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, but also recently became head of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, an organization representing nearly 40 construction unions in Philadelphia and its suburbs. These unions often work together, rallying to take on any builder who fails to yield to their demands.

Local 98 shelled out more than $10,000 on three drones, a Local 98 spokesman told the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Building Trades Council also intends to buy at least one more.

Though Philadelphia’s builders are used to strong-arm tactics from construction unions, the drone video was version 2.0, signaling that Philadelphia’s construction unions would invest in the most cutting-edge technology available to intimidate people who get in their way.

Local 98’s spokesman declined Heat Street’s request for an interview with Johnny Doc or other union leadership. Local 98 claimed online that it had bought the drones “to film [Local] 98’s own picket lines and protests to protect the union from false claims against it.” Union spokesman Frank Keel also said the drones would be used to “identify unlicensed workers, and in some instances, undocumented workers,” a statement he later retracted after the social-justice group Juntos accused him of racial profiling.

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